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Saturday, 20 June 2015

Extinction Wildlife Sanctuary: Sea Monsters

It was another warm day at the Senshijidaino Wildlife Sanctuary although that was not why Seth and one of the sanctuary’s engineers, Daniel Bell, were sweating. In order to make the sanctuary more natural the owner, Tayatami Sato, had the sanctuary’s engineers think of a way to turn the giant Haast’s Eagle Aviary into something ‘natural’. Until recently the aviary had been made out of meshing which stopped the graceful birds from flying out. Dan had helped design something that would be more natural than a giant meshing structure. Now periodically spaced out were tall poles with rectangular boxes placed on different sections of the poles. They had been investigating with sound waves and had found a theory that animals could be deterred from going places by using high frequency waves so they had jumped on the chance to implement this. Now it was time to see if the theory worked. One noble eagle was perched on the branch of a tree and swooped down to near where the meshing once was. He saw briefly the box flash red before the eagle effortlessly swooped away. There was a unanimous sigh of relief. 

“Sato will be happy,” Dan sighed happily “We can use the sound barriers for the sea exhibits now.”
For the past week Sato had wanted to bring back the first aquatic sea creatures. However, he was very against building tanks as what would be found at Sea World or similar places so the idea was to place exhibits in the warm ocean that surrounded the islands. The sound barriers would offer the perfect way for the sea creatures to remain in a certain area without swimming out and wreaking havoc. He had unnerving images of a giant prehistoric sea serpent attacking a cruise liner… Luckily that problem had now been averted although that had just been one problem.

Looking after extinct animals had turned out to be much harder than movies such as Jurassic Park. The mammoths’ immense appetite meant that staff had to constantly replant tree saplings and flowering plants to satisfy the hunger of the wandering elephants. Luckily the size of their exhibit meant that the behemoths could go for miles without coming back to the same place which gave ample breathing space before replanting had to start. Also the mammoths had built enough bacteria in their stomach so now they didn’t have to eat their own feces allowing the seeds in the feces to germinate (as what had happened in the wild) but still that would take a while. That was only just with the mammoths though! It turned out moas could just be as unpredictable as cassowaries after one kicked a keeper painfully in the inner thigh so Kioni, the Head Keeper, had to restrict keeper-moa interaction. Then the Mussaurus started to become lethargic. Seth had only found the reason by finding a theory that sauropodomorphs like Mussaurus would sometimes supplement their diet by eating eggs, insects and carrion. Getting the eggs and bugs was fine but the carrion had to involve taking it from the Haast’s Eagle Aviary so had to avoid their iron talons. Then he had done extra research and found out they were reasonably intelligent which meant keepers now had to hide chicken eggs to stimulate the little dinosaurs.

“I best be going to look over the new exhibit,” Seth said bidding Dan goodbye.

He got into his jeep whose electric engine silently came into life. The first aquatic animals to be brought back would have a small lagoon/tank on the coast of the island that they were now on (Sukaruairando). Their somewhat specialized lifestyle meant that an exhibit fully in the sea would be unsuitable, especially as the sanctuary had not learnt how to change the temperature and oxygen content for a specific section of the sea yet. He passed the large hulking building of the HQ and drove straight to what seemed to be some tarpaulin. However he knew that it was a structure covered in graphene to keep the atmosphere inside perfect. He parked up and looked at the intricately designed structure. The sanctuary’s manager, Tayatami Nobuko, met him as he went to open the air tight door. Her normally fair face was dark red as she stepped out rubbing her arms with an accompanying chatter of her teeth.

“It seems that they’ve got the climate right in there!” he laughed. 

Nobuko gave him a quick scowl before quickly darting off into the warmth of the HQ. He had specified that to make the lagoon/tank environment natural it had to be cold. When the owner of the tank lived the Earth was much colder than it is today; recovering from what was hypothesized as being the ‘Snowball Earth’ where the planet was either frozen or partially frozen. Nobuko quickly came back holding two coats which looked invitingly warm. She put on her coat and stepped inside with Seth following. He was instantly thankful that Nobuko had given him the coat. His breath rose before him like weeds growing across a wall and he could feel his teeth chattering incessantly. The building was cast in a light blue light which reflected off of a large tank in the middle of the room. It was full of artificial corals and rocks with a light grey sand offering support for the models. 

“Does it meet your specifications?” she asked quickly through the clacks of her teeth banging against one another.

He checked for the thermostat and oxygen monitor. Both bore numbers which were lower than today’s seas. It was perfect. Well it had to be. The animal that would be living in the tank would not be able to survive in the more oxygen rich and warmer waters of today. He nodded to show that the tank was perfect.

“Did Vadim say how long it would take for the hatchery to produce them?” Nobuko asked still with her teeth chattering.

“He thinks about a day with it being a proto-arthropod. But he thinks the genome will be scanned sometime next week,” he answered.

“Next week? He’s been scanning it for a fortnight now!” she cried with dismay. Although compared to other sequencers this was almost no time at all for Senshijidaino’s sequencer this was a long time. 

“Remember scanning time is based on the quality and age of the fossil,” he explained “We have good quality fossils but they are very old. From the Cambrian about 500 million years ago. They lived before there was even life on the land!”

“Wow. What is it that we’re breeding?” she asked in a mixture of amazement and shock.

He always carried his trusty book on prehistoric life to show staff members so this was the perfect time to bring it out. He flicked to the page and showed her. There was a reconstruction of possibly the most bizarre creature to ever swim in the seas. It had a streamlined body that had oar shaped plates that ran along the side to the end of the strange creature. On the head (or what seemed to be the head) were two stalks which ended in compounded eyes like a dragonfly has. On the underside of the head were two curved bony appendages covered with filaments. 

“The Anomalocaris,” he said happily looking at the look of bewilderment on the face “We’re breeding two species A.canadensis from the Burgess Shale in Canada and A.saron. For years it was thought to be different animals with the feeding appendage thought to be a crab, the mouth to be a jellyfish and the body to be a sponge.”

“It looks like someone just plucked everything from other animals together to form…that thing!” Nobuko exclaimed.

They left the building and looked over the coast. Near the shore they had finished placing a large Plexiglas dome which was attached to the poles that would soon emit sound waves stopping aquatic animals from getting in and out the enclosure. That was after they had managed to breed the Anomalocaris. 

Vadim’s estimate of when the genome would be done turned out to be correct. Almost immediately Sato had ordered that four of each species to be produced. The aquatic hatchery was through another door behind the terrestrial hatchery. Almost everyone had been caught unaware by the change in temperature. The large pool before them had been cooled to suit the Anomalocaris. The Head Keeper Kioni was buried in a mass of furs and Seth could see her shivering despite the warmth of her clothing. Only Sato seemed to be warm as he was almost bouncing around the hatchery walkway full of excitement.

“I knew Anomalocaris would be a good idea! Trilobites are too generic. Our first Cambrian animal has to be exciting and unique!” he cried. 

Nobuko looked at Seth in confusion so he had to show her a photo of the woodlouse like trilobite. Kioni called out and eight containers were dropped into the water with a loud splash. He had explained that Anomalocaris had much better eyesight than dragonflies so the consensus was that dropping the containers in when the Anomalocaris had arrived would scare them. There was a klaxon and the first four Anomalocaris (A.canadensis) darted from an unseen area underneath them.

They looked exactly like the photo except that they were two meters long, dark brown with red stripes and had black compounded eyes. 

They moved with as ease in the water as any dolphin or shark. As they swam the plates on their body rippled up and down for propulsion. Four of the containers started emitting a vile, noxious mixture of fish guts which attracted the Anomalocaris. As they swam into the containers they shut sharply allowing keepers to pick them up and move them out of the hatchery. Another klaxon sounded as the other species emerged. These Anomalocaris were almost the same except that they had blue stripes instead of red.

“Seth could you come with me please?” Kioni asked.

He followed her to the Anomalocaris tank. Kioni groaned as they entered the building due to the relentless onslaught of the cold. Quite happily the Anomalocaris were swimming around their new tank. They seemed not to mind each other if they did not swim close. Whenever they swam close to one another they would wave their appendages angrily.

“Are you sure this will work?” Kioni asked. She held in her hand a small model of a trilobite which was emitting a strange smell. He nodded. Kioni dropped the trilobite into the water. There was a theory that Anomalocaris would eat by using their appendages to tear open a trilobite or similar creature and then would suck up the innards. With their very good eyesight the nearest Anomalocaris swept towards the trilobite model. It grasped the model and easily tore it apart with considerable force. The water turned a murky black as squid wafted where the model used to be. The Anomalocaris opened its strange abyss of a mouth and sucked up the squid.

“Well that seems to have worked,” Kioni replied smiling despite the cold “We can feed them just as they did in the Cambrian and keep them stimulated. Any idea what Sato’s planning for that sea enclosure?”

He gave a smile. He perfectly knew what Sato wanted bringing back from extinction. It had taken him a good hour for Sato to be convinced to not breed the largest of their kind. With jaws full of crushing teeth, a ferocious appetite and their serpentine appearance made them look eerily similar to a sea serpent. Mosasaurs. The hit film Jurassic World had shown one in the film and Sato wanted the species shown for Senshijidaino, ironically called Mosasaurus. He had managed to negotiate with Sato to breed one that was just over 4 meters long.

“So tell me about mosasaurs,” Nobuko asked him. They were in his flat sitting in front of the television. His friends that he had made working at the sanctuary were with them as well. One of the computer operators, Tom Brown, was staring avidly at his collection of fossils which included the coiled shells of ammonites and the curved giant tooth of a Tyrannosaurus. Another one of the engineers, Jordan Wagstaff, was playing a game on his mobile.

Seth brought his book and showed Nobuko the first entries on the mosasaurs. There was a skeleton of one of the largest species, Tylosaurus, which epitomized the world’s view on the amazing creatures. Serpentine with a pointed skull full dangerous teeth evolved to tear sharks and aquatic reptiles to ribbons it was impressive. It looked almost like a sea serpent but with four flippers.

“Mosasaurs evolved in the Cretaceous period. We think they evolved from something like a monitor lizard that lived on beaches. One of the earliest known mosasaurs called Aigialosaurus still had flippers which vaguely resembled lizard’s feet. During the Cretaceous with little competition they flourished and the largest called Mosasaurus grew to be one of the largest predators,” he explained.

“Which one are we breeding?” Nobuko asked worriedly. As manager she had to make sure that the sanctuary was safe so breeding a serpentine sea monster that was larger than a great white would make that ever so much harder.

“Platecarpus tympaniticus. It was a mosasaurus which lived in the shadows its larger cousins. They’re only 4 meters long but they were very well preserved. We found that they had lungs like a mammal and a fluke tail. For years it was thought that mosasaurs had a curved tail like a sea serpent but Platecarpus showed that they had a tail like an ichthyosaur or even a shark.”

Soon over the coming week the last preparations were being made for the arrival of the Platecarpus. An underwater walkway had been built so the staff could observe the sea monsters against the clear blue water that they made up their new home. Across the sanctuary it was largely quiet; although one keeper did get a nasty nip from an Eoraptor the day the genome of the mosasaur was sequenced. 

The aquatic hatchery had been warmed up in preparation for the mosasaurus. The Cretaceous seas were far warmer than the Cambrian ones so quite likely the Platecarpus would have frozen. The klaxon rang (to which Sato cried with excitement) and a black shape emerged from underneath the walkway. It was perfectly streamlined with four paddle like fins. The tail ended in a fluke similar to a shark made a flesh; hence why it had not been fossilized well in most cases. The Platecarpus was a sparkling black and faintly Seth could see diagonal scales across the tail.

“They swim differently than I imagined,” Sato commented curiously.

He had to smile. For years it had been assumed that mosasaurs swam by curving their body like a snake. Well the Platecarpus had disproved this. The four mosasaurs were being propelled forward by their strong tails and steered using their paddle like fins. One swam downwards revealing an underside of pale white. Suddenly like a bullet in burst from the water and snapped its jaws hissing like a demonic snake. 

“Feisty things aren’t they?” Kioni laughed in shock.

There were large containers which the Platecarpus were lured to thanks to chum being dumped unceremoniously into them. The keepers were less willing to be around the mosasaurs following the little jump for freedom. The containers were shut and gently hoisted onto the nearby ship. In the distance the edge of the Platecarpus enclosure could be seen. A Plexiglas dome had been erected and attached the sonar poles for structural support. It was so the Platecarpus could breathe normally as it had in the Cretaceous period.

“I think we should all go to see them in their habitat!” Sato announced. The entrance to the underwater walkway was nearby. They descended into the darkness and walked through a nicely carpeted walkway. The sun which pierced the clear water cast a peaceful blue light around them. As they entered the Platecarpus enclosure a dark shape cast a black shadow across the floor. One Platecarpus was trying to chase a fish past the sound barrier. The silver fish darted effortlessly away as the sonar caused the mosasaur to irately swim away. The sonar was an irritation so the mosasaur would not be injured by the sonar but at the same time would allow small animals to pass in and out. 

“Drop in the food,” Kioni said through her walkie-talkie. 

He could see a silhouette of the boat ripple as a shoal of medium sized fish was dropped in. Well it would have been a shoal if they hadn’t bobbed up and down in the water dead. Being a third of the size of the larger mosasaurs it was unsurprising to find the Platecarpus were particularly fast swimmers. With two swipes of his tail the Platecarpus was already on the fish and had bit it in half. Being fast in a sea where everything larger than you wanted to eat you was a good tactic. 

“How did you know that they would live in shallower water?” Nobuko asked.

The exhibit had been created to be closer to the coast. Very evident as now a mosasaur was sweeping across the sand sending clouds of it spiralling upwards.

“Just a hunch. Larger mosasaurs like Prognathodon wouldn’t be able to come into shallower water so it could be a safe refuge for Platecarpus.”

A week later he was back in the walkway observing the mosasaurs. They weren’t particularly territorial and at times you could see them swim in tangent. One swam in front of the sun’s rays and cast a dangerously large shadow across the walkway. He thought eerily how much different Platecarpus would be from their much larger, territorial and dangerous brethren?  

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